Safe in Hell is one of the more notorious of pre-code movies and this 1931 First National production certainly lives up to its sleazy reputation.
Gilda Erickson (Dorothy Mackaill) is a call girl in New Orleans. One of her clients turns out to be an old flame of hers turns up one day, a man named Piet van Saal. Piet is a small-time hoodlum and Gilda wants nothing to do with him. They have an argument and Piet ends up dead and the building sort of accidentally catches fire and burns down.
Unfortunately Gilda was spotted going into the building and now she’s wanted for murder. Now another old flame of hers turns up. Carl (Donald Cook) is a sailor and he’s actually a nice guy and he’s crazy about her. He gets a bit upset when he finds out she’s been working as a prostitute but now she’s in trouble and Carl is going to help her out. He smuggles her on board his ship and drops her off on the Caribbean island of Tortuga. Tortuga is not a signatory to any extradition treaties so she’s in no danger of being sent back to the US to face trial.
She and Carl had intended to get married but found that the island’s only clergyman had died. They perform their own marriage ceremony. It might not be legal but in their hearts they know they are married.
Not surprisingly the only hotel on the island is full of assorted crooks, including a South American general who is proud to have led no less than three successful revolutions. He fancies himself as the only gentleman on the island, and gentleman is certainly not a word one would use to describe the hotel’s other guests. They are assorted murderers, thieves and crooked lawyers. They’re all safe from extradition, but as one of them wryly puts it it, they might be safe but they’re safe in Hell.
Gilda is the only white woman on the island so naturally all the men are interested in getting to know her better, so to speak. Gilda considers herself to be a married woman and she’s determined to be true to him but finally the boredom gets the better of her and she leaves her room to party with them.
Gilda ends up with a hangover but her honour is still safe. However an event is about to occur which will throw her for a loop. Another crook on the run arrives on the island, and it turns out to be Piet. He’s not dead after all. His arrival is good news and bad news for Gilda. She’s now free to return to New Orleas but first she has to deal with Piet’s attentions, which are disturbingly determined.
Gilda has another problem. The island’s official executioner, who also doubles as the governor of the island’s prison and a sort of unofficial chief of police, takes a shine to her. He’s even more sleazy than the crooks and a lot more dangerous. Maybe Gilda isn’t safe in Hell after all.
Dorothy Mackaill is very good, managing to be both a convincing prostitute and yet strangely innocent in her love for Carl. Donald Cook is a slightly dull leading man and really doesn’t get all that much screen time. Luckily the supporting cast is strong.
The movie pulls no punches when it comes to Gilda’s profession but what really marks this as a pre-code classic is the all-pervading atmosphere of sleaziness. It’s wonderfully seedy as well. In the 40s Hollywood would glamourise the tropics but in the world of pre-code cinema the tropics usually stood for sex, sin and madness in movies like Kongo and Rain. Safe in Hell actually has quite a bit in common with Rain - in both cases there’s the same feeling of claustrophobia and incipient craziness engendered by the boredom and heat of a tropical island. Dorothy Mackaill doesn’t make quite as good a hooker as Joan Crawford but she gives it her best shot.
William A. Wellman directed quite a few notable pre-code features and he’s in good form here.
The Warner Archive DVD-R gives us a very acceptable print of this infamous sleaze classic. Essential viewing for pre-code fans.